Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Developing critical infrastructure from a human and a societal perspective 2

Posted in business and convergent technologies, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on November 20, 2013

A few days ago I began a short series on infrastructure and on developing it for its intended context, based on my recent experience in East Africa, and particularly in Northern Tanzania (see Part 1.) And I continue that here with a goal of further fleshing out the story that I began to present in my first series installment. And I begin this with the Maasai boma, or small patriarchally led village that I visited and with Tanzania’s public school system of education.

It is a major goal of the Tanzanian government to educate all of its citizens, and as such, it offers a system of public kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, high schools, colleges and vocational schools. Primary schools run from first through seventh grade with national examinations required to pass from fourth to fifth grade and at the seventh grade for continuing on to secondary school. Students who fail the grade four national examinations are kept back and have to repeat that grade, and if they fail a second time they have two choices if they are to stay in an educational system. They can transfer to a public vocational school or at cost to their family they can continue their education in a private school. If they pass they continue on to fifth grade.

Students who pass their seventh grade national examination testing are allowed to continue on to public secondary school, and those who fail face the same basic choices that confront a student who fails their fourth grade examinations twice: vocational school but for more demanding future occupational training or private school. And at the end of their secondary schooling they face another round of national examinations as gatekeeper for entry into the public high school system. Once again, failure leaves vocational or private schooling options available for those who would continue their formal education. Tanzanian high schooling lasts two years and in the second of them students face one more national examination if they seek to attend a public college or university with top schools including universities that also offer advanced, graduate degrees such as the University of Dar es Salaam in their nation’s capital.

The basic curriculum for public schools is nationally set with a nationally mandated set of subjects to be covered for each grade. There has been a great deal of contention over what is to be covered in this and what is formally and officially left out with Civics, for example on the required list then taken off of it and then put back on again as a political football. And as a goal at least, computer use and training is on the list of approved and even required subject areas even if it is not possible to teach that at most primary or secondary schools for lack of necessary infrastructure, starting with a lack of electrical power needed to run computers of any type, including the low cost tablet computers developed for use in developing countries and their schools.

Public education is widely seen as important, and even in small and more isolated villages. And this holds, as a specific case in point for the more settled Maasai as much as for members of more traditionally settled tribes. But more traditionalist, semi-nomadic Maasai seldom send their children to school or allow that; such a child who breaks away from their traditions is no longer considered by them to be a true Maasai. Education brings change, and for the traditionalist Maasai, change is threatening to their way of life and to be excluded and denied.

So I write this posting from a starting point of education and openness to change. And I write this from the starting point of my having visited and met the community members of a more settled Maasai boma that does actively send their children to primary school at the very least and some at least to secondary too. This calls for a rebalancing in management of their herd of smaller farm animals (goats, primarily) that their younger children would normally devote their time to, with older children and adults managing and guarding their cattle – their defining source of wealth.

No one mentioned it or pointed it out to me but I saw a small solar power panel on the roof of one of the thatch roofed buildings in the boma that I visited. I did not see any cell phones but suspect that this is used to recharge one or more of them. Education brings wider exposure to new and novel ideas and ways of thinking and it brings change. As I noted in Part 1 of this series, cell phones have become commonplace, and across Tanzania, even if still primarily for basic cell phones – not smart phones, yet and certainly in rural areas. But they open still more windows and doorways to change too.

I have also had opportunity to spend time and get to know members of an Iraqw family of kiln-fired brick makers – members of a traditionally settled Tanzanian tribal group. They more openly had cell phones even if they kept them pocketed while I was with them. They openly embraced public education and the change that it brings, even as they sought to preserve their traditional cultures too – just like the Maasai, traditional and settled.

Do they in effect disown members of their tribal group who diverge too far from their culture and tradition – break away from them to a sufficient degree so as to be considered in denial of their values, as I noted in Part 1 where I briefly wrote about a now-friend who is no longer considered true-Maasai for having gone to college and adapted outside ways? I do not know the answer to that, but expect that there are very complex dynamics in play between desire to preserve old and traditional and its values, and at the same time embrace education and change, and technological innovation such as those cell phones and the challenges of change that they bring too.

Tribes and tribal traditions throughout Tanzania and East Africa, and Africa in general have their traditional herbal and nature-sourced medicinals and medical care. But when they fail even more traditional communities can and do at least occasionally send their people to outside, government or Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) supported doctors and clinics or even to privately owned and run clinics and their doctors. I have to add that people arriving from more tradition-bound cultures who are brought to outside medical services tend to be in extremis by the time they reach this outside help and are often too far gone to be helped, and certainly with the resources available at these clinics, but the effort is made.

And men who are still considered respected Maasai warriors and who carry the badges and symbols of that status with them in the form of their knife and club and even their spears at times, go out from their (settled) communities to work and to bring cash income back to their communities. Change is happening, even if in balance and a sometimes uneasy balance with tradition. And this is the context that technological innovation and infrastructure development would have to take place in, or at least this is a sliver perspective of that context.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will at least briefly share some thoughts on the issues and challenges, and the technological and social puzzles of bringing computers into the rural classroom, where there is no supply of electrical power, or even for reliable potable water. And in this I note that computers and the internet open the door to change in ways and to a degree that cannot be anticipated by peoples who have not seen this window into the world as a whole and with all of its diversity. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) and at my Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 directory, and see also that directory’s first page.

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